My favourite part of my trip to Vietnam has, by a mile, been the time I spent cruising around Halong Bay and staying on Cat Ba island. Halong Bay is, without a shadow of doubt, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
Halong Bay cruise
When I met Sanne in Hanoi, she had already booked a 2 day 1 night trip to Halong Bay with Vega travel, and after a quick scout around of their TripAdvisor reviews I was sold. Choosing a tour is overwhelming – there are hundreds of operators and varying prices/quality. At £100 for 2 days it wasn’t particularly backpacker budget friendly but to be honest it was worth every penny. The company were brilliant and our tour guide Binh was so friendly and funny.
We arrived in Halong town for our boat pick up at around 12 on the Saturday. Our boat – or junk as they’re known – wasn’t majestic but was really lovely, with clean, comfortable private cabins overlooking the water, a spacious dining area and a sun deck. In our group were four solo travellers including me and Sanne, and four couples – all late 20s/early 30s.
What followed was the most amazing two days – Binh tried really hard to help us beat the thousands of other tourists that flock to Halong Bay every day and the weather was perfect.
When the boat docked we kayaked around lagoons, cycled around islands, explored caves, hiked through the jungle (this included rock climbing, or in my case falling up and down the mountain) and climbed to the top of the viewing platforms for breathtaking views of the bay.
We ate fresh seafood for lunch and dinner, and in the evening drank beer and swapped stories with our fellow guests playing some amusing drinking games (uni friends, a Vietnam equivalent of the late night cardboard box game which I will aim to recreate at New Year) Before bed, we unsuccessfully tried our hand at squid fishing (though we found out later that no one had actually ever caught squid off the back of a tourist boat…. the sentiment was there!). We fell asleep as the boat rocked gently and I woke up to uninterrupted views of the bay from my cabins. SO wonderful!
I find group tours a *bit* much, I won’t lie. I’m just not very good at being herded around from one activity to the next in a big group of people, and following someone else’s activity packed itinerary. However in this case, I had a really nice chilled group of people and everything we did was so exciting that I really didn’t mind.
The views and area are iconic for a reason. Ok so there are hundreds of other sailing boats but that kind of added to the charm for me! Most of them are traditional junk sailing boats and not unattractive cruise liners. The water is the most vivid turquoise blue, huge leafy green rocks and mountains tower above the sea, and you find tiny coves and lagoons at every turn. There are tiny villages on stilts in the water and people who live on their boats to fish, which we sailed past with fascination, while monkeys clamber on trees high above the water.
On the Sunday night, our boat docked on Cat Ba island, which everyone who had been to Vietnam had told me I should visit. It’s got a thriving backpacker scene, is super chilled and really cheap – and indeed we stayed in a hostel (Dolphin backpackers, basic but clean) for £2 a night!
Sanne luckily is a bit of a motorbike pro, so we rented a bike which she drove around the island (and I, obviously, posed for a photo shoot on)! I actually think that day motorbiking around the winding mountain roads of Cat Ba with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces was one my favourite moments of my trip. I have never felt more free, more alive or more lucky – the views are breathtaking on Cat Ba and there’s just something so liberating about being on a bike to see it all. We even ended up on another accidental hike in Cat Ba National Park, which I recommend visiting if you have the stamina!
I really shocked myself on this part of my trip. Generally I like sedentary holidays and have never done particularly active tripsbut I have found a new love for the great outdoors and especially hiking that I hope never leaves me. I feel like I have Sanne to thank in part for being fearless and fun to travel with. What I’m learnings this tripis that life is about saying yes to everything, getting outside of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown.
We had some good food and drink in Cat Ba – most notably Like Coffee on the main boulevard which serves incredible coffee. We also met a French guy called Gael in Cat Ba and the three of us had a great drunken night out in some backpacker bar on the seafront, including laughing gas balloons which are on offer everywhere in northern Vietnam.
That night, we were out until about 1am and then thought we’d hop in a taxi home. We thought wrong. There was one taxi at the taxi rank and the driver was asleep. Our hostel was about 40 minutes walk up and down steep hills on the other side of the island. We were ready for a long drunken walk home, but Gael explained our predicament to a hot dog seller on the street. She took sympathy on us, abandoned her hot dog stand, took Gael first then popped both me and Sanne on the back of her bike and took us back before returning to sell her hot dogs. Funny, chance moments and the kindness of strangers are what make travelling for me, as well as the beautiful views and exciting trips (also, Cat Ba may I suggest you sort out your taxi options post midnight).
We decided to treat ourselves to a final night at Cat Ba beach resort in our own bungalow. I’m learning that, unlike Bali, unless you pay a serious premium quality is hard to come by in Vietnam. The bungalow was nice ish and we were glad it was private, but the resort’s customer service was seriously lacking and I had the weirdest massage of my entire life here.
Yes, it deserves its own section. Sanne and I cried with laughter talking about it afterwards but at the time I wasn’t entirely sure I saw the funny side.
We saw they offered spa services and decided to treat ourselves. You could have a massage in your room, or on the beach – we chose our room for privacy. I went first.
When my time came there was a knock on the door and there stood a tiny elderly Vietnamese man holding a bottle of johnsons baby oil. He didn’t speak much English other than ‘ok? Ok?’ But luckily did understand when I told him to stop.
I wouldn’t describe what I experienced over the next hour as a relaxing massage, more a weird semi violation. After slathering me in baby oil, his chosen massage techniques were poking, prodding, slapping (including just giving my bum a good old slap for the hell of it) and what I can only describe as a Chinese burn on my arm. When my back was done, he asked me turn over. “BREAST MASSAGE”, he said. I mean, I had had this in Bali but WHY I didn’t say no instantly given the way he had massaged my back I don’t know. So there I am, lying on my back pretty much naked while a small Vietnamese man starts quite roughly kneading my boobs as one might a loaf of sourdough. “OK STOP”, I said forcefully, while he looked perplexed. “MASSAGE NO FINISH YET”, he insisted. I managed to communicate that I didn’t want any more boob massage. He then changed technique. “STAND UP”, he told me.
We then stood back to back and without any warning he hoiked me onto his back and started doing vigorous lunges across the room to try and crack my back. If anyone had looked into the room, what they would have seen was me, top half naked, tits akimbo, on the back of this man who was easily half my height being carried around the room. At this point, I decided the massage was over.
I warned Sanne, she had one anyway but ensured he kept firmly away from the breast region. We both sat on our bed in stunned silence for a while afterwards, before concluding that this man was probably just a janitor they drafted in and that we would laugh it off as another adventure. I don’t THINK he was a pervert, he seemed like a naive smiley old man who had absolutely idea what he was doing.
Since speaking to other travellers I do understand that Vietnamese massage is not a relaxing experience and does involve a lot of slapping and prodding, so might I suggest that, to avoid our misfortune, you pay more to get a massage somewhere that specialises in other types of massage.
I’ve since had an aromatherapy massage at a nice spa in Hanoi and that was far more enjoyable!
Weird massage aside, Cat Ba was brilliant – such a welcome and relaxing break from the madness of Hanoi, but we all headed back to Hanoi as we were using it as a base to explore further or move on – in my case to visit rural Tam Coc and Sapa, which I’ll blog about next.